Tuesday, July 25, 2006


CultureGrrl Moves to ArtsJournal!

I'm pleased to announce that, after rigorous hazing rituals, I have been admitted to the blogging roster of ArtsJournal, the distinguished forum for cultural journalism that many of your already bookmark for news and commentary. I look forward to stirring up more contemplation and controversy for a larger audience. This, my original blogsite, will remain up but dormant. It's exactly three months since I began this labor of love. I was born to blog!

Come visit CultureGrrl at her new address!


Bloggers in Concert

Tyler Green adds his own impressions to the Tinterow tintypes. Sometimes reasonable bloggers CAN agree! (Who says we have a feud?)


Museum Transparency and the Tangled Web

No, this is not another exposé; it's my commentary on museum websites, inspired by the Terry Teachout Challenge. My fearsomely prolific fellow blogger, who is also the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal (among his many distinctions), recently discussed what he likes and dislikes about the websites of American theater companies. He ended the post with a shoutout to CultureGrrl for her critique of museum websites.

I'm going to turn this around a bit, not bothering with the basics. Most museums do provide the essential information about directions, admission fees (don't get me started), exhibitions, collections, etc.

But most could do more to make navigating their labyrinthine halls less confusing. More importantly, at a time when museums are being asked to display greater transparency in governance and operations, the web represents a missed opportunity for more openness. What follows are things that I'd like to see on more museum websites, with credit to the few who are already doing it:

---Help in navigating galleries: For fans of pre-planning, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, provides clickable gallery maps, like this one of the West Main Floor, Gallery 6, the locus of one of the museum's great treasures, Leonardo da Vinci's "Ginevra de' Benci." Doing a search for that work can get you a gallery map with its location marked in red. Clicking that dot gets you a list of all the works in that room, each of which can be clicked for a wealth of details, including exhibition history, provenance and even bibliography. You can also browse the galleries by clicking on the various rooms.

---What you WON'T see:---Ever go to a museum specifically to view certain iconic works, only to discover that one or more of them is missing? The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., keeps you posted on art that is off view, with an explanation of where it's gone and for how long.

---New on view: On the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, you can download their annual reports of Recent Acquisitions, including this one from 2004-2005, containing (on page 14) curator Keith Christiansen's discussion of the Duccio "Madonna and Child". The J. Paul Getty Museum also publishes an acquisitions list.

---Annual reports, board minutes: The Getty recently stated that it would publish more detailed financial and governance information on its website. The British Museum already does this: Here are its most recent trustee minutes and its annual report (although the most recent posted report is from fiscal 2004).

---Press release archives: Some museum websites include this; few are as comprehensive as the Guggenheim's, which goes back to 1998.

---Curatorial contacts: Wish you could easily communicate with a curator? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art posts contact e-mails for its various curatorial departments.

SOON: What museums never post, but should.


BlogBack: My Row with Tinterow

Responding to my posts here and here about Metropolitan Museum curator Gary Tinterow's views on collection management, Rob Krulak writes:

Beyond claiming the public's stake in the holdings of art museums as a private concern of curators, Gary Tinterow also seems to credit curators with the very creation of great public collections, as if there is an unbroken golden chain of specialist curators that stretches into the prehistory of every art museum.

That's just not how great museum collections are formed, evolve, or even come to be called great. I suppose civic entrepreneurs, private collectors (what would the Met be without Havemeyers?), journalists, academic art historians, the public, the brilliant non-specialists who created our earliest civic collections, and everyone else who contributes to the institutional and aesthetic meaning of museums were just along for the ride.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Museum Collections: Curatorial Privilege and the Public Interest

This is an overly long post, but a serious subject deserves serious treatment. The following are my promised comments responding to comments made to me last week by Metropolitan Museum curator Gary Tinterow.

One of the prime movers in founding the Association of Art Museum Curators in 2001, Tinterow appears more focused on curator-power than on public accountability, as evidenced by his recent remarks to me on the subject of collection management.

Decisions to sell objects from museum collections must not be subject to the subjective judgments or personal preferences of individual curators, however knowledgeable and well-intentioned they may be. The governing presumption should be: What enters the public domain stays in the public domain, except for works that are clearly inferior in quality or condition. The public has paid for them, after all, through the tax deductions given to the donors of money or of art.

Curatorial prerogatives are not absolute; they must be subordinated to the professional guidelines set by the Association of Art Museum Directors:

Both the deaccessioning and the disposal of a work of art from a museum's collection require exceptional care and should reflect policy rather than reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment. Standards applied to deaccessioning and disposal must be at least as stringent as those applied to the acquisition process and should not be subject to changes in fashion and taste.

Tinterow may have been correct in observing to me that some museum officials have sold objects, only to have their successors (or curators at other museums) subsequently retrieve them for the public domain. But far from justifying incautious deaccessioning, this merely demonstrates the folly of it. There is no justification for disposing of works that tomorrow's curators may deem worthy of study or exhibition, no matter how much today's curators want to fund their own purchases of art through sales of objects that they deem expendable.

How much do today's curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, for example, wish that they still had the fine Hudson River School paintings that were sold in the 1950s (as discussed in my recent Wall Street Journal article) by then director Richard Davies, who deemed them not important enough for the collection? Different types of art go in and out of fashion. A museum's collection should be for the ages and not be subject to such vagaries.

The Met's most recent deaccession controversy involved its plan to sell a sculpture by Eduardo Chillida. That plan was abandoned after it was revealed that the donor of the work opposed the sale. Tinterow told me last week that the sculpture would never be exhibited at the Met, because it is too large. But, as Michael Kimmelman reported in the NY Times, it had already been exhibited there three times, making the curator's resolve never to show it again seem questionable.

There are probably a number of art museums that would be very pleased to make room in their galleries or sculpture gardens for an important Chillida. If the Met has no use for a museum-quality work, it should lend or give that object to a sister institution that CAN use it, thereby keeping it in the public domain where it belongs.

The spectre of finite exhibition and storage space, raised by Tinterow in the comments I quoted last Friday, is a real concern. The late Stephen Weil, a noted authority on legal issues involving art museums, once suggested that institutions were going to have to consider "triage" for their collections, because they had accumulated more stuff than they knew what to do with.

But not all museums are overstuffed. Collection-sharing IS an option---one that should be more seriously explored by all museums with a superabundance of riches.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


CultureGrrl in the New York Times!

Welcome to all you NY Times readers, who had to Google "Culture Grrl" [sic] to link to me from Roberta Smith's excellent article today on museum admission fees. Her contribution to the story-that-refuses-to-die was a detailed compendium of the many museums that offer free admission all the time, or at least some of the time.

She was a bit unfair, though, to Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, who (as my post indicates) expressed sympathy for BOTH sides of the argument---for and against admission fees. Roberta only quotes his argument against fees, making MoMA's $20 mandatory tariff appear to be against his own principles.

My thanks go to art blogger Chris "Zeke" Hand for alerting me, all the way from Montreal, that the mention of CultureGrrl was "the first time the New York Times ever published the term 'art blog.'" Is this true?

Things would have been easier for you Times surfers if the online version had linked to my blog. But when I tried to get the newspaper's surfing serfs to put up the link, I got this reply:

We hyperlink to our own topic pages (please notice that all hyperlinks in the story take the reader to internal New York Times pages), and so we can't include the link to your blog.

For those of you who took the trouble to Google me in order to ogle me, you can link to my posts related to the Met's admission-fee hike here, here, here, here, and here. (Do you think I'm overdoing it?)

Y'all come back now!

Friday, July 21, 2006


Gary Tinterow on the Divine Right of Curators

At a press breakfast before a briefing held at the Metropolitan Museum this week for its upcoming high-rent loan show of French 19th- and early 20th-century masterpieces, I got into a discussion about the Met's deaccessioning practices with Gary Tinterow, curator in charge of 19th century, modern and contemporary art. He made a point of revisiting that subject with me after the briefing. I publish those comments here, but (except for a brief closing salvo) I will reserve until next week my comments on his comments.

Here's what Tinterow told my digital voice recorder:

What journalists have to understand is that curators and administrators make decisions about the formation of the collection every day. We’re the gatekeepers, going in, and we’re the gatekeepers coming out. When something gets here, it’s because a curator has made a decision to admit this work. When something leaves, it’s because the curator has made a decision for it to leave.

So the notion that there is some purity to a collection, that some greater force has brought works of art into a museum and the curators therefore are not the appropriate voice to determine the shape of the collection is to ignore how collections are formed to begin with.

Museums have actually acquired back works that they sold. What you assume is that we have unlimited storage and unlimited money, and neither is the case. Not only do opportunities change, but tastes change. And what didn’t make sense in 1900 might make sense in the year 2000. No one has a crystal ball and you are always making the collection from the perspective of today.

Something can be sold [from the museum], can be bought by a collector and can be regiven [to the same museum] in 50 years. So we don’t have the sense of finite opportunity. The collections are organic.

The most precious thing really is not money. The most precious thing is space. And that is our most severely restricted resource: it’s space, both for exhibitions and for storage. And that’s how we have to manage the collections.

The "most precious thing" is SPACE? I had always thought it was the art.


Met Fee: Reasonable Timesmen Can Disgree

The NY Times apparently decided it needed to balance its arts reporters' crusade against the coming increase in the Metropolitan Museum's "sugggested" (make that "recommended") adult admission fee. So it brought in someone from the Business Section, David Leonhardt, to bring some economic pragmatism to the discussion.

An interloper in today's "Weekend Arts" section, Leonhardt offers a detailed economic and political argument in the Met's defense.

If you view his article on the Times' website, don't neglect to click on the sidebar, "The Price of Admission," to see what some other U.S. museums are charging. Several other museums rightfully belong to the "$0 Club," including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Next week, we will undoubtedly hear from someone in the Times' Style Section: what to wear on the Met admissions line, so that the cashiers won't think that you're a rich cheapskate and will hand you your button without giving you a dirty look.

Is there no end to this discussion?

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Museum Exhibitions: Root for the Home Team

One thing not mentioned in my WSJ piece on the expanded Minneapolis Institute of Arts was the temporary loan show in the new wing, The Surreal Calder.

Better for the MIA that I didn't mention it.

Organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, this show took a one-stop shopping approach to curating: Almost all its Calders are from a single source, the Calder Foundation (which is run by the artist's family and contains works from his estate). The Surrealist works, all gathered in one introductory gallery, rather than interspersed with the Calders for comparison, are generally not the ideal examples to make a case for that movement's influence on Calder's work.

By importing a show curated by an outsider and regarded as a likely crowdpleaser, Minneapolis perpetuates the self-effacing mistake made by many museums when they open new facilities: They don't show confidence in their own curators' ability to conceive something important and engaging enough to enhance the inaugural hoopla. (I'm also thinking of the Andrew Wyeth show, organized by the High Museum, Atlanta, for its reopening, but guest-curated by an outsider.)

I'm constantly impressed by the intelligence and talents of lesser-known curators whom I meet on the road, and what better time to showcase their unique voices than when their museum is the center of public and media attention? True, the home team is mostly engaged in reinstalling the permanent collection, but surely someone can step up to the plate to bat one out of the park---a homegrown exhibition worthy to be viewed during prime time and later toured to other institutions.

In Minneapolis' case, it appears, from the advance exhibition schedule, that the first upcoming major temporary exhibition to be organized in-house is "San Francisco Psychedelic," Feb. 10-June 10, 2007.

What are they smoking?


Berry-Hill Updates

More on the Berry-Hill Galleries' bankruptcy situation has been posted online today by The Art Newspaper. Reporter Martha Lufkin indicates that other dealers, who are Berry-Hill creditors, are getting nervous.

James Berry Hill, a director of the gallery, told me on June 26 that the gallery was settling claims against it, "so that nobody is harmed." He also said at that time that the gallery's East 70th Street premises were no longer for sale.

But here they are, still available on Stribling's website for $20 million. The offering is described as "a once in a lifetime opportunity," but no longer characterized as "a court supervised sale."


With this Gehry I Thee Wed

Pssst, wanna own a Frank Gehry?

Now you can: Tiffany & Co. has just put his new line online.

Doesn't this polymath already have enough building projects to occupy him from now until 2050?

Do you think my 25-year-old son Paul and his gorgeous, intelligent girlfriend Lisa will read this and get ideas? (Oy! Am I in trouble!)


Let's Rumble!

Geoff Edgers, in today's post on his arts blog for the Boston Globe, thinks he detects "a feud brewing in the arts blogosphere" between me and a certain redhead.

Tyler's been a very kind mentor (and linker) to this blogging newbie, and Lee likes him. But, as my evil alter ego, CultureGrrl, always snarls: Reasonable people can (and frequently should) disagree.

Isn't that what blogs are for?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


BlogBacks: Met's Admissions Frissons

Here are a few readers' responses to my defense of the Metropolitan Museum's new suggested $20 adult admission fee.

CRAIG RANAPIA: I'm not really sure the "suggested admission fee" isn't really a semantic slight of hand. After all, as anyone whose met my mother can tell you, 'suggestions' properly expressed can sound a hell of a lot like an order.

I'm quite aware that cultural institutions don't keep their doors open on moonbeams and good intentions, public and private charity are unreliable sources of income, and I always have the choice to turn on my heels and walk out if I think a clearly posted admission charge is unreasonable or I just don't have enough cash. (While I don't like it any more than you, I can see a rationale for charging admission to special exhibitions while leaving core collections open to the public. Whether these so-called "blockbuster" shows are worth the tab for visitors and institutions is another debate.)

As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to install a turnstile in your entrance be honest about what you're doing and why. Don't try and shame twenty dollar bills out of people.

MARK BARRY: The new Met admission isn't that important, as long as they retain the "suggested" portion. I'm immune to the cashier, no matter the response. Many of them are also artists and could care less. My wife gets embarrassed at times, so to compromise I'll give a quarter, for two.

A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE HOMELESS MUSEUM, which describes itself as "a subversive, multi-disciplinary art project": The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the richest museum in the country, is in dire need of funds. The Homeless Museum (HoMu) invites you to support this great institution on Tuesday, Aug. 1, when the Met's new "suggested" admission fee goes into effect, by paying the entire $20 fee with pennies only. Please present 200 ounces (or 12.5 pounds) of pennies at the cash registrar for admission.

This is HoMu's second Penny Campaign. The first one was conducted in November 2004 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Do you think Randy Kennedy will pony up his pennies?


Schjeldahl on Klimt

Speaking of critics, I commend to you Peter Schjeldahl's piece in the July 24 New Yorker on Ronald Lauder's purchase of "Adele Block-Bauer I" for the Neue Galerie, New York.

An outtake:

Is she worth the money? Not yet. Paintings this special may not come along for sale often, and the hundred and four million dollars spent for a so-so Picasso, “Boy with a Pipe,” two years ago indicated that irrational exuberance could be the booming art market’s new motto. But Lauder’s outlay predicts a level of cost that must either soon become common or be relegated in history as a bid too far.

And the identity of the artist gives pause. The price paid is four and a half times the previous high (already a stunner, in 2003) for a Klimt; until a few years ago, the artist ranked as a second-tier modern master both at auction and in the estimation of most art critics and historians....The purchase of “Adele” tests the possibility—ever less to be sneezed at, these days—of rewriting art history with a checkbook.

Here's CultureGrrl on the art market's irrational exuberance.

Coming Soon: A further examination of the Neue Galerie and its collection.


Criticizing the Critics

This post may seem to be what one of my editors disapprovingly calls "inside baseball." It grows out of my post yesterday, responding to a critic who criticized my criticism of a critic. Have I lost you already? Probably. Nevertheless, here goes:

Why do you rarely see strongly negative reviews about new or newly expanded cultural facilities? Cesar Pelli's (pre-Taniguchi) expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, Santiago Calatrava's new wing (with wings) for the Milwaukee Art Museum---all received generally favorable notices when they opened, only to become more controversial with the passage of time. Similar revisionism also seems to occur in reviews of the acoustics of new concert halls---Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center in Philadelphia comes to mind.

And now that the initial euphoria over the November 2004 reopening of the Museum of Modern Art has passed, a second wave of assessments has been considerably more critical than the first round of polite plaudits.

As one who has enjoyed her share of hardhat tours and press previews of expensive, ambitious museum construction projects, I can attest to a natural reluctance to rain on these elaborate and expensive parades. So many well-meaning, talented people have spent so much time, intellect, money and effort on these new cultural facilities that it's hard to be unkind, let alone censorious.

And there's another dynamic at work: The most successful architects are also great salesmen. They convince clients to hire them by making their concepts and designs seem like the most appropriate and creative solutions to the problems at hand. They are such powerful advocates for their own work that they (or their enthusiastic museum-clients) also succeed in winning over the critics with the same rhetoric. Too often, these writers see with their ears instead of their eyes.

So we have Taniguchi "making the architecture disappear," with walls that seem to "float." We have "a flotilla of sails" atop Renzo Piano's addition for the High Museum in Atlanta, and "piazzas" (that might otherwise be called merely "lobbies" or, if outdoors, "plazas") at Piano's addition to the Morgan, his planned Whitney expansion and the High. All of these were originally the words of the architects and their clients, which were later appropriated by the critics as their own. Too often, however, the reality is more prosaic than the hyperbole.

The architects and museum officials think about these buildings far longer and more deeply than the critics, who spend a few days at most to arrive at their pithy assessments. It is tempting, while up against a deadline, to adopt the intelligently expressed, well-honed party line. But it's a temptation to be resisted, or at least carefully examined.

As for Michael Kimmelman's initial MoMA appraisal, it seemed like a grudgingly positive review, with a more skeptical assessment struggling to get out. Maybe (if last Friday's swipe is any indication) it soon will.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


CultureGrrl Leaps to Her Own Defense!

Blogger Tyler Green incorrectly claims today that I object to NY Times critic Michael Kimmelman's flipflop on the new MoMA.

"Critics," my blog-colleague wrote, "shouldn't be locked into one viewpoint for life."

Hey, CultureGrrl's been known to change her mind every now and then. That's a woman's (and a critic's) prerogative. What I objected to yesterday was, as I wrote, "the manner in which Kimmelman chose to announce" his apparent about-face: in a discordantly gratuitous aside, buried in an article about something else.

If he's formed a substantially new opinion on something this important, the chief art critic of the cultural paper-of-record should, as I wrote yesterday, craft "a more considered article about what he REALLY thinks," instead of slipping a fast one by us, without explanation or elucidation.

Is "that too bad," Tyler?

More tomorrow on the problems and challenges that writers like me (and Michael?) face in appraising new cultural facilities.


My Minneapolis Article in the WSJ---Part II

Here's the second part of my article, appearing on the Leisure & Arts page in today's Wall Street Journal. (Here's Part I).

The MIA [Minneapolis Institute of Arts] had not originally planned to engage a "starchitect." But it was essentially shamed into doing so by the ambitions of its institutional peers: For its 2005 expansion the Walker Art Center had used Herzog & de Meuron, the Minneapolis Central Library had hired Cesar Pelli, and Jean Nouvel has designed the new Guthrie Theater, which began regular performances on Saturday.

A relatively conservative establishment in a quiet residential area, the MIA "didn't really see a need to promote cutting-edge architecture, because that isn't who we are in art. That's the Walker," noted curator Jacobsen, who had served as architectural liaison for the contractors, architects and curatorial staff. But after talking to three local architectural firms, Mr. Jacobsen recalled, the MIA ultimately felt "we had to go with a bigger name." Enter Mr. Graves, who had designed the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, as well as the renovation and expansion of the Newark Museum in New Jersey. Also important were what Mr. Jacobsen termed the "well established connections" between the architect and Target, the MIA's biggest corporate donor, for whom Mr. Graves had designed a well-received line of housewares.

Speaking of the architect, Evan Maurer, who was the MIA's director until 2005, recounted during a recent interview that "what he and I talked about was how to be Michael Graves and be contemporary, but to exist between a 1974 minimalist building and a great Beaux Arts building-with materials, with proportions, with references. I think he did that brilliantly."

If not architecturally dazzling, the new wing is respectful of the museum's pre-existing facilities and hospitable to its art. Appealingly clad in richly textured Jura limestone, its box-like structure is relieved by niches and slim columns-deliberate references to the flagship neoclassical building. Its one glaringly false note is the kitschy faux sky, strewn with abundant white clouds, that is painted on the Venetian plaster dome crowning Graves's three-story atrium.

More daring in design, and strikingly dissimilar from each other as they are from the MIA, are Cesar Pelli's library and Jean Nouvel's theater. The former is invitingly open and light-filled, with soaring spaces and frosted images of digitized Minnesota nature photos, silk screened and baked onto its expansive glass walls-an evocation of Minneapolis' famously frozen winters.

The Guthrie Theater, Mr. Nouvel's first completed project in North America, is dark both inside and out. Meant to be mysterious and theatrical, it instead comes across as disorienting and gloomy. It transforms the distinguished regional theater from a 87,000-square-foot, one-stage facility adjoining the Walker Art Center into a 285,000-square-foot complex of three diverse performance spaces, a restaurant and education center-all relocated to the city's old industrial area on the banks of the Mississippi. Once best known for its flour mills, the riverfront is fast becoming the new trendy area for restaurants and residences.

Critics and audiences alike will continue to debate the merits of these recent high-profile additions to this city's thriving cultural scene. But as Mr. Griswold recently observed, one thing is beyond debate: "There could be no more exciting time to be in the Twin Cities."

[But wait! There's more to the story that could fit in the WSJ. Coming in CultureGrrl, later this week, more Minneapolis maunderings!]


My Article on Minneapolis in Today's WSJ---Part I

As you know, I can't link to the Wall Street Journal's subscribers-only site, but I AM allowed to post the text of my article. I'll do it in two parts, so as not to tax the short attention spans of hyperactive blog readers. (It's on today's Leisure & Arts page (D6), for those of you who still turn pages, instead of clicking hyperlinks.)


With unflashy simplicity, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has bucked the attention-seeking trend in museum expansions: Its new 113,000-square-foot wing for 20th- and 21st-century art, designed by Post-Modernist Michael Graves, boasts neither eye-popping "destination architecture" nor interior "Wow" space, and wasn't motivated by a desire to supply sumptuous accommodations for megashows circulated by world-famous institutions. What's more, the Midwestern museum's new director and president, William Griswold, seems far more intent on organizing what he calls dossier" exhibitions focused on individual works from the permanent collection.

The new structure joins the museum's original McKim, Mead & White building and its last expansion, designed in the mid-1970s by Kenzo Tange. "It's very much a building about the art," explained Mr. Griswold, who came here in October after having informed the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where he was acting director, that he did not want to be named permanent director.

The MIA's expansion and renovation increase the gallery space for its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions by some 40%. Nearly 1,000 works have emerged from storage-among them, a 1969 wall-sized painting from Frank Stella's "Protractor Series" that was too large for the old galleries. Prominently displayed in the new wing is the museum's sexiest new acquisition---its first car, a sleek, silver-painted 1948 Czechoslovakian Tatra T87, designed in 1936.

For the first time, the museum will have galleries for the permanent display of textiles, 20th- and 21st-century prints and drawings, contemporary crafts, silver, American regionalism, folk art, Chinese export porcelain, Ukiyo-e paintings and postwar color photography. On a recent press tour of the expanded premises, Mr. Griswold paused in the color-photography gallery, candidly describing the museum's collection in that area as weak. "I wanted this gallery to propel us to collect,"
he observed.

The collection's most glaring weakness is in the area of American paintings from the 19th to early 20th century-a gap largely blamed on one of the most infamous art-selling sprees in American museum history: From 1955 to 1958, a former director, Richard Davis, unloaded some 4,500 objects, including at least 350 paintings (among them, important works of the Hudson River School). He believed the museum should stop trying to be encyclopedic and, instead, focus on certain areas that he deemed important. Works he bought with the sale proceeds included a Seurat and a van Dyck.

The MIA's current holdings are strong, however, in decorative arts (including 16 period rooms), Old Master paintings (including highly important works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Poussin and Goya), and Chinese and Japanese art. The number of Japanese galleries has just grown from nine to 15, all newly named for collector Mary Griggs Burke, in appreciation of the recent announcement by the 90-year-old St. Paul native that she will bequeath "a significant portion" of her personal and her foundation's collections to the museum. (Another portion is destined for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.) The MIA recently received a six-month loan of 55 Burke works-from the 12th century to contemporary-to celebrate its expansion.

The museum's Chinese art collection, one of the finest in the country, owes much to a two-person, gallery-filling juggernaut-Bruce Dayton, longtime MIA trustee and former president and chairman of Dayton Hudson Corp. (the original parent of Target Corp.), and his wife, Ruth, a devotee of Chinese culture and philosophy. Some 2,600 objects in every curatorial area came to the MIA thanks to Dayton benefactions. At a recent VIP cocktail reception, Robert Jacobsen, senior curator of Asian art, introduced the Daytons to their latest sight-unseen purchase for the Chinese galleries-a rare, unusually large ding (cauldron) from sixth century B.C., labeled as "a masterpiece of late Chou bronze casting." Other recent high-profile purchases have included a $5 million landscape by Claude Lorrain.

But gaps remain, and to fill them the museum is raising $50 million for its acquisitions endowment, in addition to the $50 million for its renovation and expansion. Some $91.2 million in gifts and pledges has been raised to date, all of it from individuals, foundations and corporate donors, not government allocations. Target, headquartered in Minneapolis, contributed more than $10 million for the expansion, for which it received naming rights to the museum's Target Wing.

[If you just can't stand the suspense of waiting for Part II, invest in a copy of the WSJ!]

Monday, July 17, 2006


You Don't Need a Kimmelman to See Which Way the Wind Blows

Michael Kimmelman, in last Friday's NY Times, offhandedly demolished the Museum of Modern Art's Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building in a one-sentence putdown:
The sums that places like the Museum of Modern Art squander on mediocre buildings, which become obsolete the moment they open, are scandalous.

Come again? Here's the same art critic, reviewing the same building, at the time of its opening (Nov. 19, 2004):
By and large the redone museum, although more than a trifle like the new corporate headquarters of modernism, is a triumph of formal restraint and practical design---an eloquent reaffirmation, within its galleries, of the enduring beauty of the Modern's historic, albeit tendentious, account of modernism....

Mr. Taniguchi solved the problem of designing an immense museum by trying to make it disappear. Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Bonnard, not Mr. Taniguchi, are still the stars here, to Mr. Taniguchi's credit.

What made Friday's decision-reversing jab all the more startling was that it was gratuitously slipped deep into an article about the Neue Galerie's Klimt, to which it had no other connection than the expenditure of large sums. Do Kimmelman's reviews, like MoMA's "obsolete" building, have built-in obsolescence?

Mind you, I'm no fan of MoMA's new building, as CultureGrrl readers well know. But I was surprised by the manner in which Kimmelman chose to announce his new view. (Actually, to be fair, there was a previous, similarly unexplained, aside: On Christmas Day, 2005, Kimmelman opined that the new MoMA had "all the charm of the Cherry Hill mall on Black Friday.")

Maybe its time for a more considered article about what he REALLY thinks! Is it a "triumph," "mediocre" or just a bad day at the mall?


BlogBack: Thomas Hoving on the Met's Duccio

Right again, art-lings. The answer to yesterday's question is: C) Tom Hoving, author of "False Impressions, the Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes."

Better known as Philippe de Montebello's predecessor as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoving dukes it out over Duccio in this CultureGrrl BlogBack:
James Beck has apparently not followed the standard methodology of determining a fake in the case of the Duccio at the Met.

For one thing, he doesn't take into consideration that the piece is a private devotional image, a non-"maniera-Greca" icon. So, it is not strictly correct to compare it with larger works by Duccio and his contemporaries. There is nothing with which to compare it.

For another, Beck does not put himself in the mind of his "forger." In the 19th century, Gothic items were invariably prettified. I have seen a dozen or so that are invariably more sinuous and soignée than anything made in the early 14th century.

The Met Duccio is too unpretty to be a 19th century fake. Beck's argument that the anatomy of the Christ is rather ugly is in fact a good argument for its being ca. 1300.

Similarly, the parapet or pedestal (or whichever it is) is exceedingly rare in Gothic art. Forgers virtually never add anything to their fakes that is rare and thus
risky. The foundation of fakery is to be safe.

Thus Beck's argument here, as with the one mentioned above, tends to substantiate the piece as authentic.

CultureGrrl says, let the debate continue. What we really DO need is a Duccio dossier exhibition, organized by the Met, to allow the experts to convene, compare and contrast key examples from the artist's early oeuvre.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Question of the Day

Tomorrow, read a CultureGrrl BlogBack on the Met's Duccio, by an artworld luminary sometimes known as the "showman," who now calls himself a "fakebuster." Who might that be?

A) Zahi Hawass

B) Dale Chihuly

C) Tom Hoving

D) Nigel Spivey

For the answer, art-lings, click me Monday morning!

Saturday, July 15, 2006


The Times Shortchanges the Met

Must be another slow cultural news day at the NY Times: It dispatched reporter Randy Kennedy to "humbly proffer" 50 cents to five different cashiers at the Metropolitan Museum. (The museum had announced this week that it would raise its suggested adult admission fee from $15 to $20, effective Aug. 1.)

Journalism 101 says not to prejudge a story before doing the actual reporting, but Kennedy confessed that he walked up to the unsuspecting set-ups and "waited to measure the level of scorn that would pour down" on him.

Instead, he found "that brand of aggressive disregard particular to New York that is sometimes much more effective in evoking shame and extracting money. The first clerk...never even looked up from his screen [how dare he?]" but handed over the admission button "with the detachment of a Vegas dealer parting with a dollar chip. If he had been trained...in the most effective ways of wounding a conscience, he could have done no better."

Maybe Kennedy's conscience was fragile because he knew that his undeniably strong investigative reporting talents should really be put to better use (and also because his guilty conscience knew he was merely feigning an inability to fork over three fivespots).

What exactly did he want from those workaday cashiers: an effusive, "Oh thank you so very much, sir"? The Times is still trying to turn a non-story into a populist cause. Just pay what you want, Randy, and don't agonize over it.

Friday, July 14, 2006


A Touch of Crass

Oh my. The minions who put ads on my site (unchosen and unreviewed by me) came up with this. Apologies to Ronald Lauder and Gustav Klimt.

Please go down to this morning's first post, to see that CultureGrrl, despite her tacky moments, deserves to be taken seriously!


Simon Singes Synge

CultureGrrl occasionally strays to other art forms. (After all, I'm not merely ArtGirl, though I kinda like her site!)

I feel moved to note the complete disconnect between two reviews of the same theatrical event---Lincoln Center Festival's DruidSynge---a marathon 8 1/2 hours of the six-play theatrical oeuvre of Irish playwright John Millington Synge.

Here's the acerbic John Simon, in today's Bloomberg:

The brogue used is so thick it could blunt any knife trying to cut it, and left most of the audience chasing after comprehensible words like sparrows after sparse crumbs. The poor acoustics at John Jay College's theater made things tougher yet. Of the 19 actors, maybe three or four belong on a metropolitan stage....

Garry Hynes, the Druid's artistic director, is not really major league despite her lofty reputation at home and abroad. She gets the job done, but without that inconspicuously convincing extra touch that marks the true master.

Most important, poor, tubercular Synge, dying at age 37, did not grow into a significant dramatist.

And here's the ecstatic Charles Isherwood, two days ago in the NY Times:

Grandly entertaining and powerfully moving, “DruidSynge” is a major achievement for Ms. Hynes, her design collaborators and her superb 19-member acting company. Ranging across wide emotional territory without missing a beat, it brings alive a milieu that feels both intriguingly remote and utterly intimate, exotic in the eccentric syntax and unruly lyricism of its earthy dialogue — God bless the Irish! — but familiar in its consoling knowledge of the loneliness and despair that are the sorrowful scars of all humankind.

Interestingly, Simon (or his editors?) mercifully withdrew a slap at veteran actress Marie Mullen that appeared in an earlier posting of his review (which I saw). Isherwood called her "great and glorious."

In today's Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout comes down somewhere in between. (You'll have to scroll down a couple of items on his blog's July 14 entries to get to Synge.)

Who would you trust, in deciding what to do with 8 1/2 idle hours on a summer's day? (As for me, I'm going to Broadway to see Sarah Jones this weekend!)


The Met Collects the Rent

Harold Holzer, the Metropolitan Museum's senior vice president for external affairs, thanked me yesterday for my favorable admissions-fee story. It must be time, then, for the curmudgeonly CultureGrrl to bite the hand that stroked her.

So lets dissect a disturbing first for the Met: its upcoming Masterpieces of French Painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1800-1920, touring next year to the the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. As the images on the Houston website show, its 135 paintings include some of the Met's tastiest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist crowd-pleasers.

Sure to attract hordes (as did the Museum of Modern Art's masterpieces compendium in 2004, which also traveled to Houston and Berlin), this show marks the Met's sorry entry into the growing field of museums that use their collections as cash cows, renting out blockbusters for big bucks. The upcoming Met blockbuster, as Holzer told me, is an "opportunistic event," made possible by the need to remove the museum's French 19th-century paintings from the walls while those galleries are expanded. It is, he said, intended to "raise funds for this construction"---the first time that the Met has structured a traveling exhibition as a big moneymaker.

Houston will up its admission fee from $7 to $15 for those wanting to see this show. The Met, as I observed in yesterday's post, doesn't believe in charging extra for special exhibitions on its own premises. But, in this instance, it's apparently happy to let others do it.

Ironically, when the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, was recently asked (at a NY Times-sponsored symposium, Mar. 6) how much other museums pay for borrowing and displaying Met-owned objects, he replied, "The loans are not rentals. They are not paid for." The borrowers, he said, just reimburse the Met for its expenses.

This collegiality used to be the norm all over, and, until now, laudably remained so at the Met. But with its upcoming show, the Met joins the ranks of the Louvre and the Hermitage, which have no qualms about bolstering their own finances at the expense of sister institutions. (For a better role model, see my previous post on Clark Art Institute's loan show of Impressionist masterpieces.)

Whatever happened to building buildings the old-fashioned way, through the generosity of donors? I guess that with the disappearance, some years ago, of financier André Meyer's name from the Met's 19th-century European galleries, naming rights just aren't what they used to be.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Coming Tomorrow: CultureGrrl Bites the Hand that Strokes Her


Lowry and de Montebello on Admission Fees

For those of you who just got to this post, thanks to the mention in Roberta Smith's July 22 NY Times article, you can link to my other posts related to the Met's admission-fee hike here, here, here, here and here. (Do you think I'm overdoing it?)

Here's the post you came here for:

Relevant to the current brouhaha over museum admissions fees are these comments by Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, excerpted from a roundtable discussion by major museum directors published in Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust. (The Met has just announced an increase of its suggested admission fee for non-senior adults to $20, effective Aug. 1. MoMA instituted the same fee, as mandatory, when it reopened in November 2004, after its expansion.)

Glenn Lowry: I think there are different factors that come into play here. On one level it's almost a moral duty that museums should be free. Our collections are part of everyone's cultural heritage. We should make them available in as broad a way as possible. And an admission fee is one of the greater barriers to attendance.

Philippe de Montebello: Wait a minute. Can we be both practical and philosophical? On the matter of barriers, the people who squawk most about the cost of a museum pay huge amounts of money to go to rock concerts, sports events, all of which are very expensive. I don't buy that "barrier" thing. Philosophically, what is it about a work of art that makes it mandatory that it should be available for nothing, whereas the C Sharp Minor Quartet Opus 131 of Beethoven should be paid for, that Aida should be paid for, that Ibsen should be paid for? What is [it] about art that it shouldn't be paid for?

Glenn Lowry (later in the discussion): Part of me wants museums to be free because there is a sense that our collections and visitors' experiences of them belong to the public at large and should be available to anyone regardless of cost. Another part of me, though, says, why should it be free? Why should this treasured experience be free, especially for an entity that gets virtually no government funding? And by making it free, are we inadvertently devaluing it?

Populism or pragmatism? It seems to me that the "suggested fee" concept is still the best compromise. But it also seems to me that free admission, far from devaluing the art, is valuing the public.


The Met: Almost Free If You Want It to Be

Come Aug. 1, the Metropolitan Museum will cost you $20, but only if you want it to. You got a problem with that?

Carol Vogel, in today's NY Times, implies that the Met tried to sneak one by us by announcing the increase to arts editors "with little fanfare." (Next time, Philippe, please hire the Canadian Brass.)

The Met's enlightened admission policy says that you can pay whatever you want, as long as you pay something. The fact that the fee is "suggested" is posted at the cash register. Children under 12 and members are free; suggested admission for seniors and students is $10. (Full disclosure: Thanks to my press pass, I freeload all over town. Suggested journalists fee: $100?)

If people feel "intimidated" by this suggested fee, as suggested by one Jane Kaplowitz, quoted in the Times, they should get assertiveness training. What you pay is up to you.

When Philippe retires (some time in 2050), I suspect that the Met will begin to follow the standard museum practice of charging substantial extra fees for important special exhibitions. If I'm still blogging then, I'll lament that change: Blockbuster surcharges discourage some people from seeing those exhibitions, and they make loan shows seem more important than the permanent collection.

The Met's operating deficit was $3.4 million in fiscal 2005, an improvement from the $4.8 million in fiscal 2004 but still troubling. The last increase in the suggested admission fee---to the current $15---occurred in January 2005. That did help to reduce the size of the deficit, but more effective solutions (a big boost in the endowment from a stock-market rally, perhaps?) are urgently needed.

Next: Eavesdrop on a past colloquy about admission fees by the two director-members of the "$20 Club."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The Duccio Dialectic

I love it when art historians get angry! So here's Columbia Professor James Beck's letter, Duccio a dud, published in today's London Times, responding to last Saturday's letter by Metropolitan Museum curator Keith Christiansen, Met's Duccio is no dud.

Here's an excerpt from Christiansen:

If Professor Beck would like to see a fake Duccio, I would be happy to show him one that the Metropolitan was given in order to compare a fake with the genuine masterpiece. It is my fervent hope that Professor Beck’s allegations, which in my opinion are completely unfounded, do not diminish the public’s engagement with this exquisite painting.

And from Beck's rejoinder:

When a mediocre object is classified as a great work by a great artist, that artist is unfairly diminished and the public is misled.

You say Duccio, I say Dud-cio. But there's one thing we all CAN agree on: The Times' letter department needs better headline writers!


Lauder Covets the Four Other Klimts

To other reporters who asked Ronald Lauder if he wanted to acquire the four other Klimts from the Bloch-Bauer estate (on display July 13-Sept. 18, along with the Neue Galerie's newly acquired Adele Bloch-Bauer I), he said, "No comment."

But to CultureGrrl, he said:

We are contemplating these other paintings. Ideally, I would like to acquire all of them. It depends on what the heirs want to do.

You see, only CultureGrrl could win the confidence of the cosmetics magnate by schmoozing about our old Bronx High School of Science days. (After he heard my embarrassingly uncultured Bronx accent, he had asked me where I grew up. Luckily, Ron tawks the tawk!)

At today's press conference, he noted that the configuration of the five paintings in Adele Bloch-Bauer's Vienna bedroom "resembled very much what we have here today....I believe this is what [she] would have wanted for her art."

The problem with this ensemble is that gazing at the exquisite, iconic portrait is like looking directly at the sun: Your eyes are so dazzled that other perfectly fine paintings in the room look drab. Forget about what you've seen in reproductions, which can never give a sense of the sumptuous textures and patterned complexities of the Neue Galerie's "priceless" acquisition, said to have cost about $135 million. While you're there, don't miss (as many reporters did) the Neue Galerie's six preparatory drawings of Adele, on display in the adjoining room.

By the way Ron, CultureGrrl (née Flasterstein) was valedictorian of our mutual alma mater. Not too shabby for a humanities person in a school known for churning out Nobel Prize winners in science (including one from my own year)!


The Guthrie Herds Them In

Exterior view of the Guthrie from 2nd Street
Photo Credit: Roland Halbe

The rounded exterior of the new Jean Nouvel-designed facility for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis "echoes the area’s adjacent grain silos," according the theater’s press release. But my local tablemates at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' pancake breakfast informed me that the theater's shiny midnight-blue skin evokes a particular brand of silo---the high-end “feed storage systems” manufactured by Harvestore and favored by many area farms. Here, in a CultureGrrl exclusive (who else would bring you this?), you can see the Guthrie fronted by the photos of legendary actors and the silos fronted by very photogenic cows.

What does this say about how the Guthrie regards its audience?!?
(Time will tell: Regular performances begin there on Saturday.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Dubious Duccio?

(Helpful Hint: For those of you who just journeyed to this post, via the ArtsJournal link, I also discuss the Duccio here and here.)

In his forthcoming book, "Connoisseurship in Crisis: From Duccio to Raphael," James Beck argues that issues of provenance, quality and art history weigh against the attribution to Duccio and the date of ca. 1300, attached to the Metropolitan Museum's most expensive acquisition ever, the tempera-and-gold on wood "Mother and Child" (also discussed in my previous post).

The Met's counter-arguments, offered by curator Keith Christiansen, are presented at length in last weekend's NY Times article on the subject. Interestingly, he had been previously quoted in the Times asserting that the painting contains "the first illusionistic parapet in European art." Now, reacting to Beck's art-historical assault on the parapet (see below), the Times has quoted an observation by Duccio expert Luciano Bellosi that the Met's parapet is, in fact, not unique to its time but similar to a painted cornice in Giotto's fresco series from the 1290s in the Church of St Francis in Assisi.

Here's some of what Beck's book has to say:

[The attribution to Duccio is confirmed] by no documents or other historical evidence from the artist’s lifetime....What is more, there is no provenance for the picture until ca. 1900, six hundred years after the presumptive date of its creation.

The work was one of many acquired shortly after 1900 by Count [Grigorii] Stroganoff....[Many of those objects] were unknown or at least had not appeared in scholarly monographs, journals, catalogues, or presented in exhibitions, and consequently had not been subjected to evaluation within the discipline. Along with the others, the Metropolitan Duccio was, in effect, a new object to the field, with no previous history....The Stroganoff collection was filled with mediocre works, including possible forgeries and fakes, as well as a handful of more convincing objects.

The treatment of the gold-accented borders of Mary’s garment...proves to be yet another unsettling element which speaks against the attribution to Duccio. These borders or edges are confused, inelegant and hesitant, forming dreary swings which are uncharacteristic of Duccio’s confirmed works, like the Madonna of the Franciscans in Siena’s Pinacoteca. In other words, Duccio’s impeccable control of design is totally absent in the Metropolitan’s painting.

The Child’s raised arm, which appears like that of an amputee, constitutes another disconcerting element. While nobody should expect Duccio to draw with the anatomical precision of a Leonardo da Vinci, one might expect the limbs and hands in the little painting to be consistent with Duccio’s treatment in securely documented works, which is not the case.

The parapet or shelf located below and on a plane in front of the image of Mary and the Child...[is] the Achilles heel of the attribution....We are asked to believe the impossible: Duccio at a fairly young age made a breakthrough which he himself totally ignored in his other works, as did his followers. True enough, a similar foreshortened shelf on brackets is found in early wall painting, especially in the circle of Giotto in Assisi, as Bellosi has indicated, but in addition to being vastly different in scale, the element does not operate as a bracket in front of an image but instead serves as a kind of base for the figuration, and therefore can hardly be regarded as the same thing....Whoever produced the Metropolitan Duccio must have been aware of of the depiction of space and planes in Renaissance painting [thus suggesting that it was painted after its putative date of ca. 1300].

None of this proves that the painting is a fake from the 19th century, as Beck somewhat recklessly claims, or even that it's not by Duccio. The Met's conservation lab has done a technical examination of the painting that it says provides additional support for the attribution. It should release those findings in detail (including any attempts to date the painting scientifically), to help clarify these matters.

As for my own response to the painting: Beck himself probably knows (as Bellosi also told me yesterday) that it is not uncommon for early Italian Renaissance paintings to lack a pre-20th century provenance. I acknowledge that the work may be of truly outstanding art-historical importance. As a precursor of the Italian Renaissance, "this is the real thing: painting no longer as an illustration, but something that attempts to evoke a human response from the viewer," curator Christiansen told Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker.

But for this non-specialist, that attempt is unsuccessful. I'd much rather linger in front of another recent acquisition in the same gallery, the “Crucifixion” by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of Duccio’s pupils and followers.

Luckily, I can. The Met has something for everyone...and then some.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Bend it Like the The Times: Its Flawed Kick at Beck

Beck is ba-a-a-ack!

Always shoot-from-the-hip controversial, James Beck invariably raises the eyebrows and the ire of the art establishment that he so often inveighs against. He often undercuts his own credibility with hyperbole.

So when Beck challenged the attribution to Duccio of the Metropolitan Museum's recently acquired, very costly Madonna and Child, the NY Times tapped the big man in Duccio scholarship, Luciano Bellosi of the University of Sienna, to debunk the Columbia art history professor's latest screed.

"I have never doubted that it was a masterpiece by Duccio," Bellosi told Robin Pogrebin in a phone interview.

There's only one problem, unmentioned by Pogrebin: Luciano Bellosi has never---not even once---set eyes on that Duccio!

That was the first thing I asked him when I got him on the phone in Italy today. Even Beck had told me that Bellosi was the go-to expert on this subject. And here's what that expert had to say:

No, unfortunately I didn't see it with my own eyes, only by photographs....I know it is a very important question. It is always necessary to see the works of art in reality to be sure what they are....Art historians like Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy [of the Met] are very capable to judge the works of art with their eyes. I know their capacity. I trust in them for that.

The painting had been hidden away in private collections for many years, only available for public viewing since it was acquired by the Met in 2004 for a reported $45-50 million. But unlike Bellosi, Beck HAS carefully eyeballed the work, and I have enough wary respect for him to think that he needs to be heard, if not unquestionably believed. I thought he was right in bucking a 1996 front-page NY Times article, by deflating the discovery of the so-called Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue (about which I wrote for both the Wall Street Journal and Art in America magazine).

And when I watched a television documentary about the cleaning of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, I cringed as I saw subtle modeling and muscular definition being swabbed away, leaving behind flat, garish patches of color. (Beck waged a long, losing battle against that project.)

So, suspending Met-induced disbelief, I have read with interest an advance copy of the entire chapter from Beck's forthcoming book that questions the attribution of the museum's much praised acquisition.



Gehry Does the Math

No doubt feeling some remorse about slapping CultureGrrl around (she can take it), Anthony Calnek of the Guggenheim made a friendly phone call yesterday evening to say that AP's cost figures for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi came from none other than Frank Gehry, the architect for the proposed 322,920-square-foot museum.

Still, Calnek says the numbers are wrong: Gehry was just applying a multiplier to the per-square-foot cost in Bilbao, when questioned by a reporter at the Abu Dhabi press briefing.

Calnek had at first e-mailed me that he had seen the confidential construction cost estimates, and the reported $200 million was incorrect. Later, on the phone, he asserted that there can't even be a cost estimate, because the building hasn't been designed yet. Go figure.

In any event, although both sides have agreed to a memorandum of understanding for the project, an actual contract has yet to be signed. And what happens in Abu Dhabi stays in Abu Dhabi: The financials of the project "never have to be made public," Calnek said. Whatever the cost, none will be paid by the Guggenheim, which, if the deal happens, will get an undisclosed fee for its expertise and its "brand."

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Update

Did the AP get the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi cost figures wrong?

Anthony Calnek, the Guggenheim's deputy director for communications and publishing, writes me following:
I happen to have seen preliminary estimates, and although I can't tell you the right number, I can tell you the AP got it wrong, both in terms of what the museum will cost and what the collection will cost. I'm really disappointed that you would use your blog to in this ridiculously irresponsible way.


Calnek adds that the the Abu Dhabi government "doesn't want any financial details to be revealed." (So did the AP's Jim Krane just make up his numbers? Or did he rely on a faulty source?)

Earlier today, I e-mailed Calnek this question: "What gives you confidence that this project can succeed, where others have not?" Calnek's reply:

It's the Crown Prince [Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan], for one. I was just there, and the entire royal family---i.e., the entire government---is 100% behind this. And believe me, they can afford it. Plus, they're looking over their shoulder at Dubai.

No money problems, no political-approval issues, and a desire to keep up with Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Perfect. Now if only the United Arab Emirates could clean up their act on human rights.


There He Goes Again: Krens in Abu Dhabi

Now it's the sheiks who crave Guggenheim chic.

The Associated Press story about the planned Frank Gehry-designed Middle Eastern Gugg, filed by Jim Krane yesterday from Abu Dhabi, was far more illuminating and flavorful than today's NY Times report, filed from New York, which didn't even provide cost figures for the project.

According to AP, the 322,920-square-foot building, scheduled to open in 2012, will cost about $200 million; the combined cost of the building and its art acquisitions would be about $400 million. (Does Carol Vogel read the wire services?)

The art acquisitions could pose sticky censorship problems: "One of the first dilemmas facing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, dubbed GAD [!?!], is whether to exhibit nude works that might offend conservative Muslims," according to AP. Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, "said the topic had yet to be discussed."

Another cultural conundrum set forth by AP is that GAD would bring "a museum named for a powerful Jewish-American family...to the capital of an Arab country [the United Arab Emirates] that refuses diplomatic ties with Israel."

The ARTnewsletter suggested on May 9 that the Guggenheim had likely received from Abu Dhabi some $2 million. That's the usual fee for its "feasibility studies" for projects under consideration.

The "memorandum of understanding," just signed, probably also includes provisions for a whopping "participation fee," to enrich the Guggenheim's coffers. For Bilbao, that amounted to $20 million; for the now-abandoned Guggenheim Rio project, it was to have been $40 million.

One huge advantage of making a deal with the United Arab Emirates is that "they have the resources to do it," in Krens' words. He can ill afford yet another ousted outpost, scuttled by political or financial realities.

According to the U.S. State Department's background paper on the United Arab Emirates, they have "huge proven oil reserves....In 2005, the U.A.E. produced about 2.5 million barrels of oil per day--of which Abu Dhabi produced approximately 94%."

GAD-zooks! With his undeniable diplomatic skills, can Krens get us some oil-for-art?

Friday, July 07, 2006


How Art Made the Mini-Series---Part II

Like the first installment of the series, this week's episode of PBS's five-part How Art Made the World took the one expert's opinion (this time, about prehistoric art) and elevated it to the status of the most authoritative word on the subject. Real art scholarship is never this simple.

Host Nigel Spivey accepted the explanation by David Lewis-Williams, professor emeritus of archeology at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, that shamans created cave art to record their trance-induced, hallucinatory visions.

But this is only one of many theories regarding something we can never know for certain. The peripatetic Spivey this time transported us to Namibia to witness a "trance dance," but only linked that contemporary shaman's altered state to curative, not cultural, powers. (For some other experts' hypotheses, see my Wall Street Journal article about my recent visit to the caves of southwest France's Dordogne region.)

While no expert, I have trouble accepting the idea that shamans, whose job description involves spiritual (but not necessarily artistic) skills, were such consummate visual communicators as the masters of Lascaux and Altamira. What's more, it is indisputable that the painted forms we see in those caves were shaped and inspired at least as much by the contours of the walls and outcroppings as by the artists' inner vision.

I did take some small comfort in seeing that Spivey, like CultureGrrl, was probably denied access to the original Lascaux. The credits at the end of the episode refer only to "Lascaux II," the replica cave.


The Titian that Moved a Nation

Titian (c. 1490 - 1576)
Noli Me Tangere, c. 1514, © 2006 The National Gallery, London

While I was in Washington recently for the WSJ, I of course dashed over to the National Gallery to see its glorious exhibition Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting. But the painting that most fascinated me was nowhere mentioned in today's NY Times review by Holland Cotter.

Titian's "Noli Me Tangere" was the artwork that gave spiritual sustenance to the British during the darkest hours of World War II, as recounted by Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery in London (and now of the British Museum), in the 2004 book Whose Muse?

While London was beseiged by bombs, the museum's trustees decided that one picture a month would hang "as the only Old Master picture in the National Gallery," MacGregor recounted. This moving Titian, in which Mary Magdalene is admonished by Christ, after his resurrection, not to touch him, was selected by the public as the one it most wanted to see.

Why? MacGregor opines:

We can only guess, but I think what it meant to the war-torn Londoners must have been close to the central poetic truth that Titian was originally trying to express---the reassurance of a love so strong that it can survive death.

The label for the painting in the current Washington show interprets the meaning of the "spiraling pose" by which Christ evades Mary's touch this way: "She should not cling to his physical self, as he would soon ascend to heaven."

Those were the days---when art had the power to empower a nation.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Architecture vs. Art: When Form Ignores Function

Is architectural ingenuity enough?

I'm all for designing cultural facilities with as much creativity as the art presented inside them. (I'm a great fan, for example, of the Guggenheim Bilbao.) But the cultural clients of big-name architects must take care that the structure doesn't subvert the substance and that the design concept, while strong, is not oppressive. In the end, it's all about the art and the audience, not the architect's ego.

These thoughts are occasioned by the clash of critical titans in the pages of the NY Times over Jean Nouvel's new Musée Quai Branly for non-Western art in Paris. Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff approvingly opined that Nouvel's "wildly eccentric...kaleidoscopic montage of urban impressions" was "an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again."

Five days later (couldn't we get these two guys together on the same page?), art critic Michael Kimmelman savaged the place as "briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded." He allowed himself to vent more intemperately in narrating the slide show on the Times' website:

The permanent galleries strike me as being unbelievably ill-conceived and actually rather insulting to the cultures that they're ostensibly meant to honor....[Objects] loom out of the darkness. The only thing missing is people throwing spears at you.

Nouvel has the biggest bag of tricks of any architect now designing cultural facilities, and his out-of-the-box ideas always sound audaciously inventive. But although I haven't lately been to Paris, I did see Nouvel's new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and I have to agree with Ron Carlson, a letter writer to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, who fumed: "It is not necessary or appropriate for the interior of a performance theatre to be stark, plain and neutral so as not to be distracting. The show goes on in the dark! The theater should be beautiful, inviting, warm and comfortable."

Instead of feeling the anticipatory glow of a joyous night at the theater, you prowl the dark lobbies and corridors (with slit-like or oddly tinted windows interfering with your view) feeling like you've been conscripted as an extra in a film noir (emphasis on noir). Adding to this impression are the ghostly, barely perceptible images of past Guthrie performances, imprinted on the surrounding walls. (An appraisal of the three performing spaces themselves will have to await the drama critics. The first regular performances begin July 15.)

Apropos Nouvel, I remember an interview I had with Tom Krens in his office more than three years ago, when he proudly showed me a model of the now abandoned Guggenheim Rio project, also designed by that architect. Like the Guthrie, the Rio design featured a prominent silo-shaped structure. But Krens wasn't satisfied, because its skin was completely opaque: "I have to tell Jean that I need more transparency here," he told me.

In the touchy dance between architect and client, sometimes the client must lead.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Lloyd Webber’s "De Soto" is No Star Vehicle

In its press release announcing its Nov. 8 sale of Picasso’s 1903 “Angel Fernández de Soto,” Christie’s calls the work “arguably [emphasis added] one of the most important of this period in the artist’s oeuvre.”

So let’s argue!

The painting in question is the artist's distorted depiction of his wild and dissipated close friend. In a drawing of the same notorious libertine, Picasso portrayed him more pornographically: A naked prostitute raises de Soto's penis in one hand and a champagne glass in the other. Cheers!

Before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s purchase of the more decorous portrait at Sotheby’s in 1995, the auction house made sure everyone knew what it had going for it: rarity (one of only a handful of blue-period pictures of any importance not owned by a museum), a colorful subject (complete with absinthe and pipe) and prestigious provenance (star lot from the collection assembled by the late Donald and Jean Stralem---she, the scion of the legendary Robert Lehman art-collecting dynasty).

Not mentioned was the only strike against it, which proved no deterrent to the bidding: It’s not a great picture. That’s not just my own verdict. At the time of that sale, I solicited opinions from world-renowned experts:

In deciding which works to include in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark l980 Picasso retrospective, William Rubin, then the museum’s director of painting and sculpture, and Dominique Bozo, then curator-in-charge of the Musée Picasso, Paris, deemed the painting of insufficient quality to be included in their 1,000-work show. Experts whom I interviewed right after the 1995 sale (before they knew the identity of the famous buyer) called the portrait “just okay,” “not such a great painting,” “too exaggerated” and “caricature-ish.”

Even William Lieberman, then chairman of the department of 20th-century art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, who (as a close friend of the Stralems) had long been intimately familiar with the painting, said that although he admired it, it did not “tell you about the anguish that is in most of Picasso’s paintings of that period.”

Auctioneers, trying to get the best price for consignors, have to try to make buyers believe that their goods are the best things since the “Mona Lisa.” But when collectors, dealers and auction houses blur distinctions of artistic quality, they not only distort the market; they also cloud the public’s understanding of art.

That’s what also happened with the “wish-you-were-Vermeer”---the $30-million "A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals," which was newly authenticated before it was auctioned by Sotheby’s two years ago. Two Vermeer authorities, whom I consulted after the sale but did not wish to be identified, opined that it doesn’t belong in the master’s canon. To my mind, that gawky girl, with her dull eyes, vacuous expression, slumped posture and stiff, clumsily rendered arms and fingers, could only be Vermeer on a bad day. Or not.

As for the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation's Picasso, it owes its stature not to its high quality but to overheated hype and the cachet of its celebrity buyer, whose art collection had previously consisted largely of Victorian pictures---the lush, saccharine productions that moderns like Picasso energetically rebelled against. Thanks to the hit musical composer's $29.1-million purchase of “de Soto” (now estimated by the auction house to bring $40-$60 million), it rocketed up the charts to become one of the artist’s best-known works.

Lloyd Webber recently suggested to Bloomberg that his sale announcement would be "the biggest news in the art market in 30 years." Why does it matter if someone actually falls for such hype? After all, the proceeds will reportedly go to a good cause---the education of young performers. The problem is that feverish prices pose a threat to the longterm health of the art market. The acquisition of lesser works for exorbitant amounts is the art trade’s version of “irrational exuberance.” It can only set the stage for the next correction.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Lee Takes the Third

This is the first time I've reneged on a promise to my gentle readers: After drafting my post (which I promised you for today) on the upcoming sale of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blue-period Picasso, I realized it might work as a newspaper opinion piece (for which I actually get paid). So please be patient. Like many of you, your conscientious commentator is going to take July 3rd and 4th as a long holiday weekend!

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Awash in Washington

Right again, art-lings! I was in Washington, D.C., for the openings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, now collectively known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. George Washington himself, fetchingly arrayed in his Landsdowne Portrait ensemble, was there to entertain the kiddies while Martha looked on approvingly.

The day before the July 1 public opening, directors Elizabeth Broun (SAAM) and Marc Pachter (NPG) proudly showed me around their spiffed-up digs, while a few blocks away on the Mall, the National Archives was doing round-the-clock pumping and dehumidifying, trying to dry out from last week's serious flooding, due to the torrential rains. (The documents, they say, were not damaged.) Also closed for part of the week were the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum and the National Gallery of Art. The IRS was particularly hard hit, to the dismay of its many fans.

Can't write here about my secret Washington mission, because I've got to save it for the WSJ. But I can tell you what I WILL be entertaining you with!


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